Before Opera Chic decyphers her notes (hastily written in the back of a seriously chocolate-stained napkin from Demel), just a quick roundup – the review is coming later – on tonight’s production of Manon Lescaut at Vienna’s Staatsoper. We’ll write extensively tomorrow about the awesomeness of Fabio Armiliato’s and Daniela Dessì’s voices, but tonight we want to explain how, well, impressively not good the ideas Robert Carsen had for this staging, his second Manon Lescaut already, were.
We consider Carsen – together with David McVicar, Graham Vick, Nigel Lowery and a very few brilliant others who are mercifully under 70-years-old – the great hope for opera fans who hope to watch – and not just to listen – to some great shows in the future decades – Carsen is one of the kids whose responsibility it is to allow us not to go to the opera house wearing sleep masks to block out the sheer stupidity of the staging.
But, tonight we really wished we had kept one of those sweet green Alitalia sleep masks we wore last week coming back from the US (and not only because Alitalia’s imminent going out of business will turn them into cool retro memorabilia pretty soon).
Because Carsen is like one of those TV cops with a bad attitude and a lot of street smarts: all instincts and chutzpah, and when they get it right they crack the case before the next commercials appear; when they’re wrong, they’re like totally sending an innocent man to the chair because they’ve made themselves certain that he’s guilty, even when he’s clearly not.
Because when Carsen gets it the kicks major a$$ the way he did with his ethereal Dialogues des Carmelites and his otherworldly Iphigenie, to name just two, that are among the best productions we have ever seen; when he gets it wrong he either hammers already delicate material like Bernstein’s Candide into submission turning into something else and really damaging the piece in the process, or he simply ruins a perfectly good opera the way he did tonight with Manon Lescaut.
A first act where the students are dressed up in contemporary, GAP-style lam4r clothes and dance just like in one of those old GAP ads, only not as well, in a clap-ur-hands-say-yea fashion; where the action takes place in a mall where the women’s fashion is from the 1950s and the big props are shopping bags from Chanel and Gucci (big Puccini message: shopping bad, clapping hands like a moron good); Manon is decked out in a man’s shirt and navy trench coat just like those big stars from the DDR realist films from the 1950s (a sin especially unforgivable when the soprano is as milfatuation-worthy as Daniela Dessì, who’d really deserve better from her director and costume designer). Des Grieux instead wears an appalling black fake-leather coat over a sleeveless greenish hoodie (and good luck with that when the tenor isn’t as tall and slender and young-looking as Fabio Armiliato).
In the second act all hell breaks loose – it starts with Manon dressed out badly even as a rich woman, in a shapeless long black nightie that’s supposed to be a dress, we fear, underneath a premaman-like loose flowing purple jacket – evidently all the shopping didn’t help much since she’s made to look like a tree trunk, a good idea when the soprano weighs more than 200 pounds, a major sin when you have a soprano as attractive as Dessì. Impromptu photo shoots (with horribly stereotypical gay makeup artists prancing in various teapot stances and stealing Manon’s makeup in ways that make those black porters and maids from 1930s Hollywood movies look like models of sensitivity) follow; Manon and her chambermaids end the act gang-raped by Geronte and a bunch of soldiers dressed as the bad guys in the Matrix.
The third act’s best idea is a perp-walk of models that turns into a fashion show’s catwalk, with Paris Hilton-style celebrity justice and paparazzi shooting their flashlights like crazy, over and over, as the singers try to go on with the opera Puccini went to the trouble of writing.
In the final act, well, the desert is that same mall, with used-up shopping bags everywhere, and tons of money thrown everywhere (all the money in the world won’t buy you water, get it? Get it?? Get IT????).
In all this chaos, Dessi’s and Armiliato's singing was the usual wonder, as always, as if their voices come out of their throats already filtered and equalized and corrected by a sound engineer – they sound better live than most opera singers in studio recordings.
When in doubt, if they’re up on stage and the director is losing his pewp the way Carsen did tonight, just close your eyes. Or purchase score desk, partial view seats. (They’ll certainly beat our 70-dollars a pop seats at the Staatsoper – the least you see, the better in this case. Just listen, and dream.